Jacksonville's Civil Rights Movement--Ax Handle Saturday

In partnership with Jacksonville University's Communications Department, the stories of Jacksonville's history will be told. Learn about the rich history of Jacksonville's Civil Right Movements.

written by: Sue Bryan, Jacksonville University Student

One important moment in Jacksonville's history is the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and '60s. The city has stories to tell of inspirational leaders and significant locations. For example, just south of Jacksonville is Butler Beach. Frank B. Butler, an African-American businessman, opened the beach in response to beach segregation laws. The beach launched other African-American owned businesses and a tourist industry.

One of the most poignant moments in Jacksonville Civil Rights is known as Ax Handle Saturday, a violent mob attack on peaceful lunch counter protests in the summer of 1960. As a teenager, Rodney Hurst led many of those lunch counter protests. He shared some of those memories with us,

The civil rights movement in the late fifties and early sixties is a history of brave and unselfish Black leaders fighting against racism and segregation, and for the equality of all people in the United States.

As a nation, we are acutely familiar with the violent struggles that occurred in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Yet, most do not know that Jacksonville, Florida shared in the cruelties associated with that period.

As a member of the Youth Council of Jacksonville’s NAACP, I was one of many who fought social injustice in Jacksonville as earnestly as those on the national level.

At age eleven, I joined the Jacksonville Youth Council National Association of Colored People (NAACP) at the invitation of Rutledge Henry Pearson, the Youth Council’s Advisor and my eighth grade American History class instructor. At age 15, I became president of the Youth Council NAACP. By the hundreds, young Blacks in Jacksonville responded to the call of Mr. Pearson to fight racism and segregation through this extraordinary organization.

We represented non-violent, church-going, committed, and dignified young people determined to be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem.

One of the most visible aspects of segregation was at lunch counters. Lunch counters were white only. If segregation sought to remind Blacks of their perceived second-class citizenship in this country, then segregated lunch counters represented visible vestiges that served up daily insults. The time finally came when the Youth Council NAACP simply said “enough is enough.” Disregarding the personal physical peril, we made the decision to confront Jacksonville's segregation laws.

In Jacksonville, most of the demonstrators came from Black high schools. The peaceful protests of teenagers who dared to challenge segregated white lunch counters is not a myth or an urban legend.

It is important to understand that because the philosophies of the Jacksonville Youth Council NAACP and Jacksonville’s political and social establishment were so diametrically opposite, violence may have been inevitable. Yet, in a strange paradox, the violence perpetrated on us that day as Jacksonville Youth Council NAACP members changed the fight for civil rights in Jacksonville.

Regardless of what you have heard or seen about sit-in demonstrations at lunch counters, it was never about eating a hot dog and drinking a Coke! It was always about human dignity and respect.

You can read more of Mr. Hurst's reflections on Ax Handle Saturday and Jacksonville's Civil Rights Movement in his book, It Was Never About a Hotdog and a Coke!, or visit RodneyHurst.com. And adding to Jacksonville's rich history is easy – share your stories below. Help us share this rich history with all who come to Jacksonville by sharing your memories of lunch counter protests, Butler Beach, the Ritz Theater, or any of the other events and places important to Jacksonville Civil Rights history.

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